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lonesomepoint

lonesomepoint

Goodbye to All That - Robert Graves The strength of Robert Graves' autobiography is that it provides sharp and illuminating observations on: the culture of the British school system and students in the early twentieth century; the behavior and attitudes of British regular military officers (as opposed to both enlistees and reservists) near the frontline during World War I; and, especially, trench warfare. The book is an excellent resource for understanding what life in the trenches--during battle attacks and between attacks--was like. Trench warfare is fascinating, if miserable.

The weakness: Graves's writing is very, very emotionally restrained. At no time does he let the reader have a glimpse of his soul. It's hard not to conclude that Graves was simply a cool, distant intellectual.

The reader can figure out early on that Graves had no special sympathy for either England or Germany in the war, and the most likely reason is obvious. Graves had one German parent and many German relatives, and spent substantial time in Germany in his youth. This, in addition to his joining the British Army for self-interested reasons, prevented strong nationalistic feelings in him toward either country.

Except for its extensive descriptions of trench warfare life, I consider this book ultimately a failure, due to two problems. One is Graves's emotional restraint. He eventually makes it clear that he has been psychologically damaged by the trench warfare, using the word "neurasthenia" frequently to describe his mental condition during leave and relating that he suffered from shell shock for years after the war. Therefore, the restraint must be excused, I guess; Graves did what he could do. Nevertheless, the reader can't see much of Graves's soul at any time.

The other problem is inexcusable. If you read reviews of this book or read other biographical information on Graves, you will know he left England circa 1929 and moved to Spain permanently, feeling very bitter toward England. We can figure out that the bitterness must have been due to the stupidity of the entire war, the stupidity and arrogance of the English military leaders, and the naivete and ignorance of patriotic English civilians; but apparently there was something else that made Graves angry and bitter. Unfortunately, Graves does not explain what that was, does not even give enough clues for us to guess. The only reason at all that we know his angry departure was due to anything other than World War I is the first paragraph of the prologue (written in 1957), which says:
I partly wrote, partly dictated, this book twenty-eight years ago during a complicated domestic crisis, and with very little time for revision. It was my bitter leave-taking of England where I had recently broke a good many conventions; quarreled with, or been disowned by, most of my friends; been grilled by the police on suspicion of attempted murder; and ceased to care what anyone thought of me.


That's honestly all he says about whatever drove him out of England, as though it couldn't be important or interesting. He says absolutely nothing about his later career as an important classicist writer, either. I suppose he wanted to relate only the history of his youth and his career as a soldier during World War I. This book should be called a "memoir," because it's much too incomplete to be an "autobiography."